The ongoing turf war between SEO and PR shows little sign of blowing over any time soon. The reason for this is that there is a clear overlap between the two disciplines and lots of people in both camps are very defensive about their roles. This is compounded by a widespread lack of understanding of SEO.
In this post I’m going to take a stab at explaining the issues in neutral terms, so that hopefully we can start to think about the bigger picture and escape from the circular argument that has so far failed to answer any of the important questions.
Let’s start by outlining the objectives of both disciplines:
- SEO – aims to ensure that the brand’s website appears highly in search engine results for relevant search terms
- PR – aims to ensure the brand has a positive reputation amongst its audiences
One of the main sources of friction between the two camps is that they both employ similar tactics to achieve these aims. One of the best ways to improve SEO is to get other websites to link to yours. Links from authoritative, high profile websites, such as respected media sites like the BBC, Wall Street Journal or Engadget are extremely valuable in this respect, and the easiest way to get a link from one of these sites is to convince them to write about your company in an article.
So, immediately we have a conflict. Managing relationships with the media is something PR feels it should definitely be in control of, but SEO also needs to find ways to engage with (online) media in order to get those links. Nothing is more likely to send a PR manager into convulsions than the idea of another department (or, worse still, external agency) talking to the media.
Even when we’re not talking about working with high-profile media, SEO people are still likely to want to place bylined articles with a wide variety of third-party websites to get more links. Often, the PR team might not always agree that the content of the articles or the type of websites being used
But things get more complicated when social media is involved. From the SEO perspective a corporate blog provides an ideal opportunity to post lots of keyword-rich copy on the company website to attract the attention of search engines, whereas PR will want to use it to publish thought leadership pieces and news announcements. The two objectives don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but in the real world you can usually expect fierce disagreement about who should take ownership of the blog.
SEO could also make a reasonable case for owning channels such as Facebook and Twitter on the grounds that these can also be used to enhance search engine rankings, while PR will argue that these are vital tools for reputation management.
Different copywriting styles
SEO copywriting tends to focus on technicalities, such as ensuring the text contains the correct density of keywords and appropriate use of hyperlinks, and since they are written for search engines rather than human readers the quality of the articles can be quite poor. PR copywriting, conversely, focuses on getting the brand’s messages across persuasively, but usually no consideration is given to SEO even if the article is intended for online use, which is clearly a missed opportunity.
When creating a press release, the first aim of PR is to try to ensure the story gets picked up by as many journalists as possible; the release is designed to catch their attention, not (usually) to be published itself. But SEO people write press releases for online syndication; that is, they expect the release to be republished verbatim across a large number of news aggregation sites, which will provide lots of links back to the company website. Again, these are two very different objectives achieved using similar tactics, so it’s no surprise that there’s confusion about the roles and responsibilities of PR and SEO.
Obviously, all businesses are different and there can be many other ways in which SEO and PR overlap. The problem is made much worse, I think, by a general lack of understanding about how SEO works; most PR people don’t get it and neither do a lot of people from other marketing communications disciplines. Likewise, a lot of SEO people (who generally tend to be from a digital background) don’t understand PR issues.
Unfortunately this means that the most obvious solution often gets overlooked; You need somebody who understands both PR and SEO to coordinate their efforts, and it has to be somebody with enough clout to force them to play nicely together.
‘PR vs SEO’ is great fodder for blog posts, Twitter debates and digital marketing talking shops, but the real world consequences of failing to get on top of this issue are wasted budgets and missed opportunities. If you can get your SEO and PR people working in synch, the results can be wonderful; I’ve seen it happen.
The barriers to achieving this are largely political, since in most organisations there’s no shortage of people with the right skills; it’s really just a matter of getting them to work well together.